WILKES-BARRE — A nonprofit organization has it eyes on city-owned vacant lots as part of a plan to revitalize neighborhoods.
Larissa Cleary, founder of In the Gap, presented the group’s plans for the properties to City Council this week. “My idea is to utilize the city’s land; sell it to me for $1 in order to build and develop the area,” she told council.
With only five minutes to present her group’s plan, Leary provided a summary and said she looked forward to meeting with council members for a more in-depth discussion. If given the opportunity to do so, she said, “I could make every one of them happy.”
In the Gap, based in the city, intends to construct 12 townhouses on Hickory Street and single-family houses in the 400 block of South River Street, she said. If the lots don’t sell, the group would revamp its plans so the townhouses would be rent-to-own properties, Cleary said.
Cleary added that she has been assisting homeowners on South River Street to apply for facade grants from the city to fix up their properties with the aim of increasing their values and creating an incentive for people to build on the empty lots. Her group would pay for improvements in order for homeowners to receive up to $5,000 in matching funds from the city through the Gateway Facade Improvement Grant Program.
Skate park proposal
An additional component of Cleary’s proposal dealt with purchasing an abandoned building and converting the site to a skate park for youths.
Councilman George Brown, who introduced the group to council, said he’s received “an awful lot of phone calls from neighbors about these (empty) properties.” The city has had to dump loads of dirt on some of them to prevent access and keep out trespassers, he said.
During questioning from council, Cleary acknowledged this was the group’s first attempt at an endeavor of this size and scope.
Councilman Tony George expressed concerns about Cleary’s proposal and the fact that the group does not have financing in place for the construction. “There’s no taxes while they’re being built,” he said. “We lose taxes while you rent, too.”
He suggested the city would benefit more if the group bought blighted properties, remodeled them and sold them rather than attempting to build new houses on the vacant lots.
Cleary explained her group hasn’t yet committed to a specific plan because it was not sure the city would agree to the proposal. The group can do a lease-purchase option, she said, that transfers the deed so taxes are paid upon the transfer of ownership.
“There’s different ways to do the agreement, and the idea is to get these properties back onto the tax rolls and to put money back into Wilkes-Barre,” she said.
Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle asked if the facade program dealt with the parcels the group wanted to buy from the city. Cleary told her the facade grants apply only to owner-occupied houses and In the Gap is providing the money to the homeowners who can’t afford the renovations.
She said that the group would like to help as many homeowners on that block of South River Street fix up their properties as an incentive to sell the lots it wants to buy from the city.